The Note: Guys and Polls

Whether or not a pronoun tipped a hand . . . or Joementum is back . . . or Ralph Nader's advice matters . . . or the schedule means anything . . . or Joe Biden is or isn't the guy . . . the race looks markedly different than it did just a few weeks ago, even before any running mates join us for the ride.

Between the aftermath of his foreign trip and his Hawaii vacation -- and the new, crisp (if juvenile) messaging from Sen. John McCain -- Sen. Barack Obama has lost his swagger in the race.

Now it's Obama who's having trouble driving a sustained message -- subsumed by his own veepstakes fog, even while he continues to see himself defined by outside forces and events.

(McCain meanwhile, plays a dangerous veepstakes game: If the first rule for a running mate is to do no harm, is it possible that McCain is harming himself even without making a choice?)

As he prepares for a return to the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., Saturday (when he'll finally have company), the race is still more about Obama than it is about McCain.

But Obama caps a summer slide with a big national poll that reminds us that this race is just about tied. (Mark this down a convention storyline -- one that raises the stakes of all of Denver's mini-dramas.)

The Bloomberg/LA Times poll has it Obama 45, McCain 43, among registered voters. That's a tie race, folks.

"John McCain has begun rallying dispirited Republicans behind him, while Democratic rival Barack Obama has made scant progress building new support, leaving the presidential race statistically tied," Michael Finnegan writes in the Los Angeles Times.

Think the McCain strategy is working? "Obama's favorable rating . . . has slid from 59% to 48% since the June poll. At the same time, his negative rating has risen from 27% to 35%. The bulk of that shift stems from Republicans souring on Obama amid ferocious attacks on the Democrat by McCain and his allies."

Among the trouble spots: "More than eight out of 10 voters say McCain's patriotism is strong, compared with just 55 percent for Obama," Bloomberg's Catherine Dodge and Heidi Przybyla report. "Overall, McCain has a slight edge on the question of honesty and integrity, while more than three times as many voters say Obama would change the way things are done in Washington."

A hallmark of the Obama operation has been its self-confidence. Outside events, public polls, intra-party sniping -- all of it is essentially ignored in Chicago. That's why the plan hasn't changed -- but should it?

When is keeping a secret bad for the message? When everyone knows there's a secret being kept.

"The fog of speculation over who will accompany Sen. Barack Obama down the aisle in Denver has obscured his message," ABC's Andy Fies reports. "There are no doubt compelling reasons for the time it has taken Obama to choose his running mate. The question is, has he paid a price for his deliberateness?"

He's taken a pounding from McCain, and Obama is starting to hit back -- though that, too, carries repercussions.

The storyline of a more-aggressive Obama has now taken hold. Now look for GOPers to tie that to the tightening of the polls. "Celebrities like him aren't used to being challenged like this," one Republican operative tells The Note.

Everyone is starting to notice the ads that were supposed to fly under the radar.

"Senator Barack Obama has started a sustained and hard-hitting advertising campaign against Senator John McCain in states that will be vital this fall, painting Mr. McCain in a series of commercials as disconnected from the economic struggles of the middle class," Jim Rutenberg writes in The New York Times. "The negative spots reflect the sharper tone Mr. Obama has struck in recent days on the stump as he heads into his party's nominating convention in Denver next week, and seem to address the anxiety among some Democrats that Mr. Obama has not answered a volley of attacks by Mr. McCain with enough force."

"Quietly negative," says Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group. Adds Rutenberg: "The spots have clear potential to undercut Mr. Obama's promise to remain above the fray of what he calls 'the same old Washington games.' "

"The negative ads, running in 18 states, hew to themes that Democrats and groups allied with the party have been hitting for months," Noam Levey reports in the Los Angeles Times. "But they mark a change for the Obama campaign, which until recently concentrated its advertising money on casting the freshman Illinois senator in a positive glow. . . . Obama's negative turn, however, runs the risk of undermining his promise to bring change to the political system. It may also compete with the candidate's other messages, namely that he is ready to be commander in chief."

And the vaunted money edge Obama has expected? Well, not so much: When you include party money, McCain and Obama finished July just about tied.

Newsweek's Andrew Romano: "A tied race is better news -- at this point -- for McCain than it is for Obama. Why? Because on Sept. 4, the Republican nominee -- who opted into the public financing system--will receive a check from U.S. taxpayers for $84.1 million. Obama won't."

It means McCain can dwarf Obama's spending for the rest of August (he has to spend his primary money by then) and then comes an even bigger advantage: "For the final two months of the campaign, McCain will be able to stop detouring from the trail to attend private fundraisers, relying instead on $42 million a month in public funds plus an estimated $130 million from the RNC to see him through," Romano writes.

After the rise: "The Obama campaign and its media handmaidens are taking their candidate way too seriously," Michael Goodwin writes in his New York Daily News column. "So much so that they could be setting up a backlash against the hype. No human being can meet the wildly inflated expectations that accompany the rookie senator's every move."

Even his hair is showing the wear and tear: "When the critics paint you as green, maybe gray isn't so bad," Michael Saul write in the New York Daily News.

The sun is shining on McCain now, too: "On Tuesday, his luck improved. Hurricane Fay stayed well to the southeast, giving McCain clear skies for the hour-long helicopter flight to the Genesis oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico," Perry Bacon Jr. and Michael Shear report in The Washington Post.

Said McCain: "When I'm president, there will be a whole lot more like this, not only here in the Gulf but also off of our East and West coasts."

(New Quinnipiac poll out Wednesday: "Americans favor 62-32 percent drilling for oil in currently protected offshore areas.")

One more pressure point (a wacky Rodham brother is back): "A brother of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and local Democrats who backed her unsuccessful presidential campaign socialized privately Monday with a top surrogate of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain," Borys Krawczeniuk reports in the Scranton Times-Tribune.

"The private gathering featured Carly Fiorina, Mr. McCain's top economic adviser, and took place at the Dunmore home of political consultant Jamie Brazil, a longtime friend of Mrs. Clinton's family who has signed on as paid national director of Mr. McCain's Citizens for McCain Coalition," he continues. "The attendees included Tony Rodham, Mrs. Clinton's youngest sibling, his wife, Megan, and their two children; attorney Kathleen Granahan Kane, who coordinated Mrs. Clinton's presidential campaign in Northeast Pennsylvania during the primary election; and Virginia McGregor, sister of Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty."

At least Obama can keep a secret: He's made up his mind on a running mate, but no text messages yet -- and nobody outside the very inside really knows. (How do time zones play into the plan for a first-thing-in-the-morning alerts? Does Obama want to wake up tens of thousands of West Coast supporters with a buzz that says, "It's Kaine.")

McCain is keeping his thoughts secret, too -- but those on the inside are busy conditioning those on the outside for something outside the box.

"Top aides to Sen. John McCain are continuing to gauge reaction from key supporters about the possibility of choosing a running mate who supports abortion rights," per ABC News. "The Republican operatives tell ABC that those conversations have continued into Tuesday. Top donors and convention delegates have been getting calls from high-ranking McCain associates, including Campaign Manager Rick Davis, and senior advisers Charlie Black and Carly Fiorina."

It's not just former governor Tom Ridge, R-Pa., being discussed: "John McCain is seriously considering choosing a pro-abortion-rights running mate despite vocal resistance from conservatives, with former Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) very much in the mix, close McCain advisers say," Politico's Mike Allen, Jonathan Martin, and Alexander Burns report.

More on Lieberman, per Martin: "Top aides to Joseph Lieberman have reached out to former staffers in recent days with 'substantive questions' about the issue areas they focused on while working for the Connecticut senator."

This is probably a head fake that will be forgotten in 10 days (or just maybe a way to make a Mitt-flavored pill go down easier).

But how long can this go on before he erodes whatever Saddleback goodwill he accumulated?

El Rushbo issues a veto: "If they do that, if the McCain camp does that, they will have effectively destroyed the Republican Party and pushed the conservative movement into the bleachers," Rush Limbaugh said on his radio program Tuesday. "If he picks a pro-choice running mate, it's not going to be pretty."

Others are trying to do the same: "Republican Party officials in several states are in a frenzy over how to persuade Sen. John McCain not to invite pro-choice Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman to be the Arizona senator's running mate," Ralph Z. Hallow writes in the Washington Times. "Concerned state GOP officials on Tuesday discussed by telephone and e-mail whether to organize delegates to reject Mr. Lieberman if his name comes up for a floor vote for the vice presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention."

How many activists have this response? The New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller reports: "Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is a close friend and traveling companion of Mr. McCain, raised the idea of a running mate who supports abortion rights last week when Mr. McCain met with social conservatives in Birmingham, Mich. Mr. Graham asked if the group would rather have a running mate who opposed abortion but caused the Republicans to lose or a running mate who supported abortion rights and caused the party to win, recalled James Muffett, a social conservative who attended the meeting. Quite a few people, said Mr. Muffett, said they preferred to lose."

Where can we file this tidbit? "Former U.S. Rep. Rob Portman (R-Cincinnati) will be with John McCain at an Aug. 29 Dayton rally, the day after Barack Obama gives his convention speech," Justin Miller reports for PolitickerOH.com.

And what does it mean that former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., is booked for Denver? (One last tryout?) Romney "is set to speak Tuesday at a counter-rally organized by Republicans near the Pepsi Center in downtown Denver, where Democrats will be gathered to hear, among others, Hillary Clinton," per The Boston Globe's Foon Rhee.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, R-Minn., may be joining him in Colorado.

As for Obama's choice: Only one candidate made his way into Obama's speech Tuesday, and this is Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., being Biden: "Hey guys, I'm not the guy," he told reporters staked out at his Wilmington, Del., home, per ABC's Z. Byron Wolf and Jennifer Parker.

Later, his answer shifted (slightly yet critically): "I have not spoken to anyone," he said.

Biden's point: The guy (or gal) who is the pick doesn't know anything. But did Obama mean to signal that his guy is definitely a guy?

In North Carolina on Tuesday, Obama "used a decidedly male pronoun" in talking about his vice-presidential pick, per ABC's Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller. Obama "is almost always diligent about saying 'he or she' when discussing his potential running mate," they note.

Tapper brews some tea on "Good Morning America" Wednesday: "Does it mean anything that Obama will campaign on Thursday in Virginia with Gov. Tim Kaine? . . . Then there's Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh -- does it mean anything that his wife just had her hair done and is telling neighbors she's sorry but they need to prepare for a media pack?"

Obama campaigns in Virginia on Wednesday -- but Kaine won't be with him until Thursday.

The buzz still belongs to Biden: "My bottom line is this: Barring a big surprise or last-minute change of heart, the choice is likely to be Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee," Newsweek's Howard Fineman reports. "One of the contenders also revealed a tidbit about timing. That person says Obama's camp wants to know how to get in touch on Thursday afternoon."

The Wall Street Journal's Christopher Cooper: "Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden returned from a visit to the war-torn country of Georgia to find himself in a new spotlight as speculation intensifies over Barack Obama's imminent choice of a running mate. With tensions reminiscent of the Cold War in the former Soviet bloc, and turmoil in Pakistan following President Pervez Musharraf's resignation, foreign policy has taken on new prominence in the campaign."

National Review's Jim Geraghty makes a good point: "The fun thing about an Obama-Biden ticket is that the McCain campaign can point to a new awkward comment by Joe Biden -- either on the importance of experience, in praise of McCain, or in support of invading Iraq -- that contradicts the stands and qualities of the Democratic nominee for every day from now until Election Day."

Is Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., the victim of liberal attacks? "Bayh's apparent fall was only the most recent show of liberal muscle," Sridhar Pappu writes for the Washington Independent. "In the past few months, Obama has taken some degree of heat for clinging to the yellow line of the middle of the road on everything from voting for the FISA bill to agreeing to offshore drilling as part of an overall energy bill. The question now seems to lurk near Obama like a tripwire: Has he forsaken progressive ideals to win the center? And if he hasn't, should he?"

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, D-Kan., grabs the latest New York Times profile. "Of all those said to be on the short list for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas best embodies the kind of bipartisanship that Barack Obama hailed in the convention speech that made him a household name four years ago: no red states or blue states, just the United States," Kate Zernike writes.

Surely this means it's Kaine: "A source inside the beltway informed me that high ranking officials throughout Virginia were recently summoned to the governor's office for an emergency meeting which reportedly involved discussions on the line of succession if and when Kaine steps down to become Obama's running mate," Adam Fogle reports for Palmetto Scoop.

You know Obama is asking himself: What would Ralph Nader do? All the supposed short-listers? "I don't think he's that dumb," Nader tells Politico's John F. Harris. "He just has to swallow hard and do what JFK did" in picking a former rival: in this case, Hillary Clinton.

Is it still possible? "Barack Obama is poised to announce his running mate any day now, and all signs say it won't be Hillary Rodham Clinton -- even though Clinton told supporters on Long Island just last week that she'd take the job if offered, two Democratic sources said," Newsday's Craig Gordon and Nia Malika-Henderson report.

What (we think) we know for sure: There will be a pick by Saturday morning. The Obama team "will showcase the new Obama ticket Saturday in Springfield at the Old State Capitol, where presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) officially kicked off his campaign in February, 2007," Lynn Sweet reports in the Chicago Sun-Times.

USA Today's Kathy Kiely: "That event, a kickoff for a Midwestern campaign swing ending with his arrival at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, would seem an ideal opportunity to introduce a running mate. Not far away is Indiana, home to a possible vice presidential pick, Evan Bayh."

Yet: "Sources in Springfield said authorities have been asked to prepare for an Obama visit that could include a newly chosen vice presidential candidate, but a senior campaign source cautioned the visit was still being planned and may not include a running mate," John McCormick and Rick Pearson report in the Chicago Tribune.

What we will learn from all of this: "These are the three I would focus on when the picks are made: 1. was it heart or head; 2.was it about a partnership or just politics; 3. does pick appeal to good or bad in person," Matthew Dowd reports in his ABCNews.com column.

Another lesson: "Keeping the veep secret is a major test of the mettle of both campaigns. Will either one pass the test?" Chris Cillizza writes at Washingtonpost.com.

The Sked:

McCain will spend the day in New Mexico, where Obama spent his Tuesday. McCain holds a town hall meeting at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces at noon ET.

Obama will be on the opposite side of the country, starting his morning with a drive from Greensboro, N.C. Then it's two days of Virginia campaigning, with an 11:30 am ET town hall meeting on energy in Martinsville, Va..

Later in the day, Obama will head to Lynchburg, Va. for a second town hall -- appearing with Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va.

President Bush takes his turn at the VFW convention in Orlando.

And he comes back to New Orleans. "President Bush plans to mark the upcoming three-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina with a speech at Jackson Barracks Wednesday that will extol the progress made since he promised the federal government would stay 'as long as it takes' to rebuild the Gulf Coast," Jan Moller writes for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "Gov. Bobby Jindal is scheduled to meet the president at Louis Armstrong International Airport and accompany him on a tour of the barracks as well as at the speech."

Also in the news:

Ummm . . . seriously? "Rain or shine," Obama will speak outdoors at Invesco Field at Mile High, Natalie Wyeth, press secretary for the Democratic National Convention, tells Gannett's Chuck Raasch.

Jesse Jackson (not speaking at the convention) sees the sweep of history: "This year, what one sees, is the blossoming of trees planted in '84 and '88," he tells the Rocky Mountain News' M.E. Sprengelmeyer. "I wanted to make sure the media saw this not just as a three-year race with a phenomenal guy, but a 54-year race with a phenomenal guy."

So platforms are generally lame -- but does McCain want it to be a scorecard for his differences with dogma? "When a committee meets to draft the document in Minneapolis next week, one voice will be largely absent: John McCain's," June Kronholz and T.W. Farnam report in The Wall Street Journal. "Instead of fighting with party activists to form the platform around his own ideas, Sen. McCain has taken a hands-off approach."

Former Clinton adviser Howard Wolfson declares the new anti-Obama book as a flop: "Although Jerome Corsi's book 'The Obama Nation' has been out for just a brief period, it is already clear that it has failed to put a real dent in Senator Obama's candidacy.  The book may sell to hardcore conservatives, but its electoral impact will be minimal," Wolfson writes. " 'The Obama Nation' contains no real revelation or new criticism about Senator Obama. . . . The media, which all too often covered the claims of Corsi and his allies uncritically in 04, have focused instead on reporting the inaccuracy of his charges in 08."

More from the Corsi files: He lost a cool $1.2 million in a 1995 business debacle, Brian Mooney reports in The Boston Globe. "In his varied career as best-selling author, conservative journalist, and outspoken polemicist, Corsi has become one of the nation's most controversial political provocateurs. But the business deal that went sour before he became famous has made him the target of bitter criticism."

There will be a respite: 9/11 will mean no attack ads for a 24-hour period, after lobbying from a victims' advocacy group, MyGoodDeed.org, ABC's Jennifer Parker reports.

From the annals of (non)disclosure: "The University of Illinois on Tuesday refused to release records relating to Barack Obama's service to a nonprofit group linked to former 1960s radical activist William Ayers," the AP's Pete Yost reports. (Is Illinois really big enough for two spokesmen named Bill Burton?)

Coming in the Sunday New York Times Magazine . . . Obama on the economy: "What we need to bring about is the end of the era of unresponsive and inefficient government and short-term thinking in government, so that the government is laying the groundwork, the framework, the foundation for the market to operate effectively and for every single individual to be able to be connected with that market and to succeed in that market. And it's now a global marketplace. Now, that's the story. Now, telling it elegantly -- 'low taxes, smaller government' -- the way the Republicans have, I think is more of a challenge."

It's primary day in Alaska, and look who's worried: Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. "Together, they have helped build one of the nation's wealthiest states out of an unruly territory, pushing foreign fishing fleets out of Alaskan waters, opening the way to oil development on the North Slope and using their considerable power from decades on Capitol Hill to funnel billions of dollars of federal money into roads, schools, hospitals and rural development," Kim Murphy writes in the Los Angeles Times.

"But the two men who once were considered unbeatable now face bruising fights in Tuesday's primary election that could put their once solidly Republican congressional seats up for grabs. Both have been caught up in a long-running federal investigation that has already seen three GOP state lawmakers, the former governor's chief of staff and three others convicted on corruption charges."

The Kicker:

"Wellesley or Wesleyan, I get those two confused." -- Barack Obama. (Hillary Clinton is Wellesley '69.)

"Less traditional choices mentioned include former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, an abortion-rights supporter, and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential prick in 2000 who now is an independent." -- Unfortunate AP typo.

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